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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



John Larson
[Written while the author was a freshman at
The University of Oregon, and should be read
with understanding of the same. —JL]


Love and Gender in the Poetry of Donne

The 17th century opened with a generation of great social change which culminated in the eventual execution of King Charles I in 1649. This created an atmosphere of conflict that permeates much of the literature of the period. The writings of John Donne are rife with this conflict, reflecting in their content a view of love and women radically and cynically altered from that which preceding generations of poets had handed down.

     John Donne's view of love deviated greatly from the Medieval philosophy of courtly love, which had been expressed in poetry handed down from the sonnets of such poetic giants as Sidney and Petrarch. The general verse until then had focused greatly on the unrivalled importance of love in the context of the life of the poet (or his creation's voice). Until then, "love" had consisted mostly of an obsession with one woman, and an exploration of the feelings and situations that this caused in the narrator.

     Donne's reversal of that introversion came in the form of an intellectual exploration of the nature of his relationships themselves. His verses often point out the selfishness inherent to new love, as in "The Good-Morrow." In this poem, Donne's focus is on the exploration of the new world, which he then twists around to imply that his entire world is formed between his mistress and himself. "[Love] makes one room an everywhere." (l. 10) His poetic conceit (conception) is an explication of the emotional conceit (vanity) underlying love. A clearer example of the universalization of love is seen in "The Sun Rising" with the lines "She is all states, and all princes I,/Nothing else is." (ll. 21-22) With the equal weight of both his mistress and Donne's part, we see a much more balanced relationship than we ever read evidence of between, for instance, Astrophil and Stella.

     The lament turns most satirically against such Petrarchan traditions of sonnetry in "The Canonization," where Donne explicitly takes up literary arms against the dogma of the tortured conventions of the previous century's sonnets.

Alas, alas, who's injured by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one man to the plaguy bill? (ll. 10-15)

     The emotions of Petrarchan sonneteers were often described (as they suffered their melancholy tears and sighs) using seasonal imagery, with frequent contrasts between heat and cold. By intentionally manipulating the common poetic instruments employed by the classics, Donne creates a very ironic tone in which he twists and breaks apart those ideals. This poem begins with, "For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love," launching an apostrophe attacking the Petrarchan custom. In this manner, he not only assaults that style by demonstrating a twisted mastery of it, but also the attitudes which come with it. This conflict and resulting breakdown of former ideals illustrates the larger conflict seen in the era which Donne survived.

     Another belief which Donne addressed was the perspective with which women were viewed in the poetry of the time. Donne's work abridged the icy distance which women were seen from. Unfortunately (from a modern perspective), this often led to passages and sentiments which can be described as bluntly misogynistic. The spectrum of his opinions, however, seems to run the gamut between objectification and equality of love. He rarely, however, places the object of his affection on a pedestal.

     Where the ideals of courtly love held the woman to be unreachable, Donne has lines such as the following from "The Indifferent" which read, "I can love her, and her, and you , and you,/I can love any so she be not true." (ll. 8-9) Far from unreachable, Donne's mistress is now made a commodity which could easily be replaced. She is not worshiped in lines such as, "Rob me, but bind me not...." (l. 16) Her seeming unimportance undercuts traditional (poetic) gender roles established centuries earlier. This demystification continues in Donne's "Song," a poem explaining how there is not anywhere in existence a beautiful woman who will remain faithful. "And swear/No where/Lives a woman true, and fair." (l. 16-18) This inconsistent nature attributed to females is hardly complimentary, but it is certainly a vast change from the cold indifference of Petrarch's idyllic mistress.

     In still another twist on poetic description of social norms, "The Undertaking" presents as a brave (to the point of heroic) deed his relationship with a woman based on the "virtue" in her heart– and then the hiding of that relationship to avoid scorn. He presents the woman very nearly as an equal, which is a strange concept when contrasted with more of Donne's verse.

If, as I have, you also do
Virtue attired in woman see,
And dare love that, and say so too,
And forget the He and She; (ll. 17-20)

     In the rest of the poem, Donne states that this exercise (relating with a woman based on her virtue) is useless, as it is almost impossible to find such a woman with virtuous heart (ll. 5-12), thus fulfilling his apparent anti-feminist beliefs. Still, the peculiarities of this poem should be viewed for all they are worth, as they are particularly reflective of the change in the view of women.

     In the phrase "forget the He and She," Donne expresses a sort of visionary equality through the shedding of gender roles. Be it in the consideration of their own torture or the quiet worship of their unattainable mistresses, Petrarchan sonneteers never seemed to consider the possibility of relationship rooted in equality. This would be utterly shattering to the framework in which those poets wrote. Donne "undertakes" to break down this cemented tradition, and further, to hide it (l. 4).

     "From profane men you hide,/Which will no faith on this bestow" (ll. 23-24) describes those from whom this love is hidden. He understands that his view of equality is disruptive to commonly held beliefs, and so would face the reactions of those who would "deride" (l. 24) his approach. The alternative to their contempt is secrecy. Donne describes a world (in poetry, and possibly reality) in which women cannot be viewed as equals without the risk of disrupting social norms. Yet he still attempts to work against the grain of this doctrine.

     These social norms had been established in poetry for several hundreds of years when Donne began his work breaking them down. Working against such conventions in the perception of love and women, Donne radically altered his poetry to accommodate both a more human and more equal view of both. In the end, the effect of these changes may have been lost for a few centuries, as his poetry was swept aside and not embraced until the onset of Modernism, but perhaps, given the underlying misogyny of his poetry, this was for the best. Going from the diminutive extreme to the entirely distrusted extreme may have been a more frightening alternative for women's history than the more gradual climb from silence we now conceive of.

Text copyright ©1999 John Larson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on February 10, 2003. Last updated April 18, 2012.


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